The Hollow Heart of the West

Dominique Moisi
6 Min Read

It is tempting to compare NATO and the European Union to the French and Italian football teams in this year’s Euro 2008 competition. What unites them, above all, is a process of “competitive decadence.

The EU and NATO may see themselves as potential rivals or complementary partners in the field of defense. But what their leaders say in private reveals a sense of common frustration.

“We fail to translate military presence into political influence, says the NATO person, who sounds very much like EU representatives commenting on the Union’s role in the Middle East. “We have failed to transform economic aid into political influence, they lament.

The crises that the two institutions now face in the wake of Ireland’s vote against the Lisbon Treaty and the deterioration of security in Afghanistan are of course very different. Yet both are ultimately identity crises.

Both NATO and the EU have been forced to redefine how they function and rethink their purposes after a dual process of enlargement. From that standpoint, the challenge confronting NATO may be even more difficult, for enlarging the security organization not only means taking on new members, but also exercising new “out of area responsibilities.

Moving from the North Atlantic to Afghanistan, and from deterrence to combat, has proved to be a major challenge for NATO – a test that may prove harder than the disappearance of the Soviet Union nearly 20 years ago.

Can NATO survive defeat in Afghanistan? The question is far from abstract.

The challenge posed by Afghanistan was underestimated from the start, and the Alliance has under-resourced it.

The lack of a clear plan – is the goal to defeat Al-Qaeda or to create democracy? – remains problematic, but less so in the short term than the lack of adequate resources.

Indeed, while Afghanistan is the size of France, NATO has sent the same number of troops as it has in tiny Bosnia. The war in Iraq has not only caused NATO to lose focus in Afghanistan; it has also undermined solidarity of purpose among allies. And, without confronting much more seriously the “sanctuary role unwillingly played by Pakistan, there is no solution ahead for NATO in Afghanistan.

The other major problem facing NATO is linked to the United States’ loss of the moral high ground.

In the artistic imagination of Europeans, America has become associated more with servitude than with freedom. In the Berlin Opera’s latest version of Beethoven’s Fidelio, the prisoners seemed to be coming out of Guantanamo.

The Afghan quagmire and America’s image are not the only problems facing NATO. The organization has to redefine its purpose, particularly its relationship with a resurgent Russia.

NATO’s aim cannot simply be, to use Lord Ismay’s famous formula, “to keep America in and Russia down.

By losing its geographic focus, NATO is now confronted with a major identity challenge. Is it to become a “league of democracy ? If so, it must consider having a special relationship with countries like India and Japan, to name a few.

If it is to remain a “Western Alliance in a “globalized world, must it define a much clearer relationship with Russia without giving the Kremlin a veto in the Alliance? Or will NATO eventually become an “alliance for stability that includes all the new powers – China, India, and Brazil, not to mention Russia – of the emerging “multi-polar world ?

One thing is certain; a “shrinking West, as long as it retains some influence, must create the best institutions it can during the time it still has.

In essence, the EU’s fundamental dilemma is not that different from NATO’s. It has succeeded so well that it has taken on new members and new responsibilities, but has lost focus and clarity of purpose.

What is Europe’s project today? Where does the EU end? It no longer dreams of becoming the “United States of Europe, and Jacques Delors’ suggestion of “the United Nations of Europe has remained too ambivalent, if not deliberately ambiguous, to be effective.

After the Irish “No, can the Union find salvation in NATO’s idea of a “coalition of the willing ? Can the most determined pro-integration Europeans leave the pack without being paralyzed by the coalition of the unwilling?

Of course, the Irish “No is not the equivalent for the EU of what the Afghan quagmire represents for NATO. Yet it also constitutes a major setback and challenge of an institutional, political, and even psychological nature.

How do you recreate a European “narrative that reconciles the Union with its citizens? The EU has lately failed – far more than NATO has – not only to win hearts, but also to convince Europeans that in a global world, it is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Dominique Moisi, a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate,

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